Experiential commerce has been touted as the solution for many of the problems facing physical retail in recent years. This is a broad concept, but the fundamental idea is centered on giving the shopper a unique experience that can’t be replicated through remote channels.

How one accomplishes this will vary based on product category and target demographic. Let’s take sporting goods stores, for instance; some outlets have managed to remain competitive and keep customers coming through the doors by offering in-store training equipment and play fields. This allows customers to interact with goods before buying. Other stores offer experiences that don’t directly market their products, but which are closely connected to them, like in-store yoga classes or unique digital experiences.

Personally, one of my favorite examples of experiential commerce in action has been the return of Toys ‘R’ Us. The brand launched their first new stores in 2019 following their bankruptcy two years earlier, embracing a much more experiential approach to the business. In effect, they reimagined the physical location as less of a conventional retail outlet and more like a miniature trade show, allowing major brands like Nintendo, Nerf, and Lego to exhibit on their sales floors.

Of course, that was all before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus shook the market to its core by forcing physical retailers across the country to shutter their doors. But, even after reopening, how does one go about creating a hands-on experience for customers while minimizing physical contact? How will the virus impact broader trends regarding the in-store, experience-centric approach?

Do Customers Feel Safe While Shopping In-Store?

Many stores were obviously forced to shut down for extended periods due to quarantine conditions with the onset of the virus. As they reopen and try to entice buyers back, though, the experience-centric elements that retailers relied on may be inaccessible due to current conditions.

Touchscreen interfaces are a no-go in most cases. Customers won’t be able to get as hands-on with test models and other products in the store as they might have otherwise. Many interactive play and gaming elements are probably inaccessible.

Even when retailers may be able to offer a version of that same in-store experience, there’s no guarantee that customers will want it under the current conditions. According to one study published in June, for instance:

  • 65% of women and 54% of men say they feel unsafe trying on clothes in dressing rooms.
  • 78% of women and 64% of men feel unsafe testing beauty products.
  • 66% of women and 54% of men say they feel unsafe working with a sales associate.

That discomfort is unlikely to abate any time soon as the virus continues to sweep the globe. This highlights a key vulnerability of the experiential model: the customer has to be capable of actually experiencing products or services in the store.

We have to keep in mind that it’s impossible to make any foolproof plan. No one could have predicted a global pandemic that would change how consumers interact with businesses on an indefinite basis. Even for business leaders with decades of experience, the best we can do is learn as we go and make forecasts based on our knowledge and experience.

3 Ways to Offer Experiences in a Post-COVID Environment

Touch-oriented, experiential commerce is still the most viable path forward for physical retail. When competing with online sellers who can offer greater convenience and lower prices, brick-and-mortar sellers need to double-down on the advantages afforded by their physical space.

Conditions change from one day to the next, so any detailed, long-term planning may be a waste of time and resources. What we can do, though, is consider the ways in which retailers may adjust the experiential approach in response to COVID-19 in a broader context.

Option #1: Simulate the In-Store Experience

Pivoting toward virtual events, rather than in-store experiences, is one option. Hosting webinars, remote classes, and other digital content from within the store can keep the brand present in the customer’s mind and make buyers eager to get back into the store. This could make it easier to have continuity once things get back to normal.

Option #2: Augment the Sales Floor

Using augmented reality (AR) and hologram technology in store allows for customers to interact with objects that have volume and a sense of physical presence, without any actual matter. For example, using AR to facilitate furniture and décor planning in a virtual space. This way, retailers can still provide an engaging experience while minimizing physical contact.

Option #3: Leverage the Shopper’s Device

Sellers can provide digital features that could be activated by the customer’s mobile device to offer a guided in-store experience. This could include directories, shopping tips, suggested purchases, or even games to entertain and engage shoppers.

Reduce the Experience to its Core Concept

The above examples aren’t meant to be an exhaustive (or prescriptive) list. The COVID-19 outbreak presents a definite challenge to the hands-on, experience-centric approach to commerce. We don’t have the benefit of previous experience we can look to, so the path forward is ultimately going to rely on a trial-and-error approach.

Data published by YouGov finds that customers are attracted by special events. These can be held outdoors, allowing for more space to facilitate social distancing. Prize giveaways, performances, and product demonstrations are also popular with buyers.

Ultimately, the key is to pare down experiential commerce to its core aim: attracting shoppers based on an exclusive experience that can’t be replicated outside the store. This means pinning down the experiences that customers find most meaningful and engaging, then leveraging those elements to their greatest effect.